Tag Archives: retina

More (Retina) Display Thoughts

Dell U2711 beside a white MacBook

Simpler times. My setup from November 2010, featuring a Dell U2711 beside my white MacBook of the time.

If I’m honest, I was a little early to the 4K train. Had I known about the Retina-class displays that would be coming out not that long after I purchased my first, current, and only 4K display, I would probably have waited a year or two. That’s not saying I don’t love my Dell P2715Q — having a 4K, 60Hz, IPS display in late 2014 for under $1000 was a pretty sweet deal at the time — but had I known about the higher pixel density displays that were coming out, I might have waited. But predicting the future of technology is a fool’s game, and hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Retina-class displays are a mess. You can count the models you can currently buy new on one hand, and none of them come in under $1800. The introduction of Apple’s own Studio Display means there’s now exactly three models you can buy new today, making it an exclusive club indeed. LG’s UltraFine 5K, Apple’s own Pro Display XDR, the Apple Studio Display… and that’s it! There are a bunch of older models that you can’t find new today, but even at “peak Retina” a few years ago, there were never more than a handful of models available that came with roughly 220ppi. There are some that come close, like LG’s UltraFine 4K, but even then that costs over $1000 today, which would otherwise buy you a nice 4K high-frame rate IPS display (more on this in a sec).

Reviews indicate that the Studio Display is a fine display. While it costs similar to what a 27-inch, 5K iMac cost back in the day, with the latter having the price advantage of including a whole-ass computer, there’s still some value there for people firmly ensconced within the Apple ecosystem and want a quality display that’s not the Pro Display XDR and the eye-watering price that comes with it. The Studio Display comes with some innovative features that haven’t yet been seen in any display so far, thanks to the A13 SoC and whatever version of iOS its runs. Centre stage is cool, I’ve read that the speakers sound great, and perhaps most importantly, it probably won’t have the same quality and reliability issues that have plagued the UltraFine 5K, despite the latter being a much simpler display without the bells and whistles of the Studio Display. It turns out that if you want reliability, you strap an iPhone to the display and call it a day. Hey, if it works, it works.

But it’s not for me. A lot of people have been wondering if Apple would ever get back into the display game, and now they have, I’m not so sure that Apple would ever make a Retina-class display for me, someone that wants a quality panel without all the bells and whistles.

I’ve been thinking about upgrading my display for a while now. I’ve had a Dell P2715Q since late 2014, and it’s probably about time I started thinking about my next display. While my dream display — 4K or higher res, 120Hz or higher, and IPS HDR or OLED HDR, doesn’t exist yet, it’s getting close to that time I want something better.

I’d like a Retina-class display as much as the next guy. My primary computer is a Mac, and a 5K, 60Hz display could easily be suitable for both general computing and some gaming, just like my 4K 60Hz is currently. But my choices are either an UltraFine 5K, or Apple’s Studio Display, and neither of those can be had for under $1800. And plus, it just wouldn’t feel like that much of an upgrade for that kind of money. The only real thing they’re offering that my current Dell can’t is higher pixel density.

So what’s the alternative? Thankfully, 4K 144Hz HDR displays are becoming more and more common, and if you’re looking in the 27-inch sweet spot, there are quite a few options.

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Dell SP2309W — 2048×1152 what now?

I spose the iphone4 would be a good subjective test of screen tech like this – Cramming relatively big res into tiny screens.

Er, no, no it wouldn’t.

Back story: there’s a pretty nice screen on that Dell makes. It’s the SP2309W, and for $279 you get a 23″ TFT Dell monitor that does 2048×1152, higher than high definition (but still at a ratio of 16:9).

I pointed out this monitor to a couple of my friends, and one made the comment you see above (along with something about a weird resolution for a computer monitor).

Before I continue I’d like to point out that most of this is a re-hash (albeit a pretty poor one) of Dustin Curtis’ thoughts on the issue — I’d suggest you go read his blog first, and then come back here when you’re done.

And that’s exactly where he’s wrong. It’s not like the iPhone 4, because while the iPhone 4 crams a relatively big res into a smallish screen, it does so in a way that doesn’t affect the size of on-screen elements.

Traditionally, what happens is that as pixel density gets higher, user interface elements get smaller. It’s got something to do with how large any specific UI element actually is, and how text has been traditionally rendered.

Over at his blog, Dustin explains:

This means that if you draw the letter “a” in 12pt Helvetica on any screen, it will take up exactly 8×9 pixels (almost all the time). As you increase the number of pixels on the whole display, the number of pixels that it takes to draw the letter “a” in 12pt Helvetica stays the same, the letter just becomes smaller.

More pixels crammed into a smaller space (that is, a higher pixel density), results in things becoming smaller. If you think about it, it makes sense — say you’ve got an image that’s 512×512, the size of an typical Mac OSX application icon. If your screen displays that at, say, 100ppi, it’ll appear to have certain dimensions on the screen if you chose to measure it with a ruler. Measure that same icon on a 130ppi screen, and it’ll appear smaller. Not because it’s lost any pixels, but because those same pixels have been jammed into a smaller space.

Then you hit the iPhone 4. It’s not quite resolution independence*, but what Apple have done works pretty well. Instead of using the same graphics resources as the iPhone 2G/3G/3GS, developers are encouraged to develop “retina-optimised” graphics — that is, graphics at double the resolution of their previous-generation iPhone counterparts. Why? Because such graphics will increase interface definition.

If you take that same icon that we had in above example, and instead of just scaling it up or down to suit different resolutions, what you can actually do is create a whole new version of that icon so that it displays at the same physical size — regardless of which screen you display it on. Obviously the icon will look vastly improved on a higher resolution display compared to the lower resolution one, but that’s only because we’re increasing image density alongside pixel density.

Dustin, again, sums it up best:

This means that when iOS scales the elements in physical size to fit the 3.5-inch iPhone 4 screen, they take up the same amount of space as the elements drawn on the iPhone 3GS but they use four times the number of pixels.

Four times the number of pixels, represented in the same physical space = incredible user interface definition.

If that’s not mind-blowingly awesome, I’m not sure what is.

The whole “retina display” mentality of the iPhone is not about representing more things in the same space —  it’s about showing the same stuff, just at a better quality. Contrast this to the display above — because whatever you use on that display (Windows, or Mac) isn’t resolution independent (Mac OSX is to a degree), things will appear smaller, and that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

* okay, it’s not resolution independence at all. Without getting too technical, Apple are actually using two sets of graphics resources for everything — apparently they found that ahead-of-time resolution independence offered the greatest performance/resource benefit. More reading available here on the matter (thanks, Bjango!).